Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review: Damon Albarn stops in Raleigh on way to 'Roo

Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz stopped at Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre Thursday on his way to perform at Bonnaroo Saturday for a beautiful, fun show.

I expected a fairly chill, down tempo set considering the quiet, slower material on Albarn's new solo album "Everyday Robots," but while the set had those quiet moments it also contained real rockers and, as anyone familiar with Albarn's diverse work would expect, segues into reggae, dub, gospel, and hip-hop.

The show began with "Lonely Press Play" and the title track to the new album - both standouts. "We are everyday robots on our phones" Albarn sang to a room full of people with devices in hand snapping photos of him, recording video, or, in my case, taking notes. It was ironic, but expected. I put my phone in my pocket.

The concert was originally slated for a larger seated theater, but the club turned out to be an appropriate setting for a show that shifted between stark intimacy and more upbeat material. His voice sounded lovely. The band was a crack pool of musicians with lively chemistry and a crisp, live energy. The bassist/guitarist/ukulele player, who was dressed like Cab Calloway, had charisma to spare.

The crowd whooped as the group lit into Gorillaz' "Tomorrow Comes Today," but those more familiar moments were kept to a minimum. He did a handful of tracks from his other projects the Good, the Bad, & the Queen and the little known Rocket Juice & the Moon, as well as a number of Gorillaz songs. He premiered "Broken" with the Austin Choir Band and Heavy Seas. However big hits "Clint Eastwood" and "Feel Good Inc." were saved for Bonnaroo where the original collaborators Del the Funky Homosapien and De La Soul could join him. Blur's "Song 2," which he played in Boston earlier this week, did not make the cut either.

But you couldn't fault him for focusing on beautiful autobiographical gems like "Hollow Ponds" and "You and Me" (two of my favorites from the new album, which may be one of the best records of 2014). When a famous frontman releases a solo album, I think there's this idea that it'll just be for hardcore fans and it won't hold up to the rest of their catalog. Albarn's "Everybody Robots," while much more intimate and quiet than any of his previous projects, is downright astounding in its beauty and poetry. "Hollow Ponds" is incredibly autobiographical right down to locations and dates. The crowd roared when he referenced Blur's 1993 album "Modern Life is Rubbish" in the lyrics, but those same words - like many on the album - paint a picture of the songwriter's early life.

Albarn and his band elevated the material with the sense of joy, which they repeated at Bonnaroo. Raleigh's concert also debuted the Austin Choir Band - a gospel vocal group who accompanied Albarn on a handful of songs. Their presence added another layer and sense of joy and spontaneity to the show. He said they'd only rehearsed at sound check earlier that day.

Ending the set with two Blur songs ("Out of Time" and the rocking "All Your Life"), he and the band returned for another Gorillaz song - "Last Living Souls" as well as two more new standouts "Mr. Tembo" - a gospel, world music sing-along - and the church-worthy anthem "Heavy Seas of Love."

At one point as my husband held our five-year-old at the edge of the crowd on the floor, a man on Albarn's crew came up to me and said in a thick English accent, "Let me get a set list for your baby!" As a parent the fastest way to a mother's heart is through her child and the staff at Lincoln Theatre and Albarn's crew were incredibly kind to us. I almost decided not to go when they moved the venue to a general admission club, but I'm so glad we made the trip. I would have regretted not going after watching his show at Bonnaroo online.

Albarn was considered a celebrity in the `90s and I was a Brit-pop nut, but at the show he seemed very normal, dressed in jeans, the same blue shirt he wore at Bonnaroo and a different blue jacket with a hint of stubble. He was gracious, funny, and even a little self-deprecating about his guitar skills.

This was my five-year-old's fourth show in little over a month, but this one was extremely special. He loves music, but Blur was his first experience with having a favorite band. Blur's 2013 reunion was reserved for massive global festivals (the closest was Coachella which I woke him up at 1 a.m. to watch streaming live online). Albarn's Raleigh show was his chance to see his hero in person, in a much smaller setting than he'd ever see Blur. Sure he would've loved to have heard Blur's big singles or "Clint Eastwood," but he was still satisfied with "Everyday Robots" and "Mr. Tembo" and now he's diving into Gorillaz catalog.

Attaching so much meaning to the show may certainly color my review, but Albarn's music - like the Ramones - has also taken on new meaning in my life because of my son's love of it. I was fan enough to have albums by both, but I've learned much more about those two bands and their catalogs in the last year than I ever did as a casual fan. And "Everyday Robots" has given me a new appreciation for Albarn as a songwriter and as a down to earth, everyday person. This documentary, which I wrote about on the blog a couple months back, really illustrates that. I highly recommend it if you are a fan of any of his work (or even if you're just curious). You can watch it here.